Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Lower Manhattan should push cities to install more pedestrian safeguards — including the ugly bollards that already seem to be everywhere — while perhaps accelerating the shift to urban design that reduces vehicular traffic.
That’s because there will be more such attempts, whether inspired by the Islamic State or a lunatic’s private grievances. Another certainty is that as long as there are vehicles on the road, all the security measures in the world won’t be enough to stop every attack using a car or a truck. It’s easier than building a bomb and, at least in states such as New York, easier than buying a gun.
But overhauling our streets for pedestrian safety would make it harder to use a vehicle as a weapon and also reduce the number of pedestrian deaths that have nothing to do with terrorists. It could also serve us well when autonomous vehicles become commonplace.
Robert Puentes, president and chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation, said this transformation of urban design is already underway, and tragedies such as Tuesday’s attack are likely to contribute to the sense of urgency in bringing it about.
“We’re not going to get rid of cars, nor should we,” Puentes said Thursday in an interview. “But one thing that dovetails with this is what’s happening with many cities and urban places around the country, which is trying make the urban environment less accommodating to moving vehicles as fast as possible.”
Police said that Tuesday’s attack was a deliberate act of terrorism by Sayfullo Saipov, who they said used a truck rented from Home Depot. Eight people were killed and 12 wounded in the worst attack in New York since Sept. 11, 2001.
We’ve been on notice for a long time that vehicles can be lethal weapons. It was not so long ago in Charlottesville that a Nazi sympathizer drove a vehicle into a crowd during a white supremacist gathering, killing one person and wounding others. Last November, an Ohio State University student — who, the FBI said, appears to have been inspired by Islamist radicalism — carried out an attack on a group of students using his car and a knife. In 2006, Mohammed Taheri-azar, who was a native of Iran and a former student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, drove a Jeep into a crowd of students there to avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world.
Attackers have also used vehicles as weapons to inflict mass casualties in Britain, Spain, Germany and France, including the Bastille Day attack in Nice that claimed 86 lives.
Every time these events occur, people demand action, and public officials and law enforcement pledge to tighten security. You don’t see as much outcry about the thousands of people who die on our streets because of carelessness.
Across the United States, pedestrian deaths have risen 25 percent over a five-year period tracked by the Governors Highway Safety Association, far faster than the 6 percent increase in overall traffic fatalities. It might be that more people are on the road, thanks to a buoyant economy, and it might be that more people have their eyes buried in smartphones, whether on foot or behind the wheel. Whatever it is, more could be done to keep people and vehicles apart. In New York City, pedestrian deaths rose slightly to 144 last year, compared with 139 in 2015, the New York Times reported this year.
“It isn’t just about foreign terrorism,” Puentes said. “We need to prioritize safety across the board. Cities can do a lot just in the normal course of what’s happening now to move away from the approach we’ve had for the past generation, which was exclusively focused on vehicles.”
That’s already happening to some extent as planners work to keep the urban renaissance alive by focusing on mobility and sustainability, Puentes said.
What’s more, the advent of self-driving vehicles offers even more incentive for urban planners to reshape street design in ways that accommodate a revolutionary form of transportation while putting a priority on human safety instead of technology.
If anything, cars might remain as important as ever when the current fleet of gas-burning, human-driven vehicles give way to more electric, environmentally friendly and perhaps safer robot-driven cars. That means reassessing how and where the car fits in, not necessarily hoping for its elimination.
“Cities have the ability now to craft the kind of world they want in an era of automated vehicles,” Puentes said. “It’s really more of a rebalancing than anything.”
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